SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — A gun used in last week’s deadly school shooting in Santa Clarita was made from parts; an untraceable, so-called ghost gun, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office.
It’s the latest case in a growing and dangerous trend:
November 14, Santa Clarita: A student opens fire on campus at Saugus High School, killing 15 year old Gracie Anne Muehlberger and 14 year old Dominic Blackwell. Three others are wounded.
August 12, Riverside: Cellphone video captures a shootout on the 215 freeway. California Highway Patrol officer Andre Moye Jr. dies. Two others are wounded.
June 19, Sacramento: Police officer Tara O’Sullivan, responding to a domestic violence call, is ambushed and gunned down.
July 21, 2015, Walnut Creek: 19-year-old Clare Orton is shot and killed in her home by her estranged boyfriend.
These deadly shootings have one thing in common: the firearms used in each case were homemade, unserialized and untraceable. These kinds of firearms are known on the street as “ghost guns.”
“It’s a huge challenge,” said Graham Barlow, Special Agent in Charge at the Sacramento field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Barlow says a home-assembled gun that used to be a pastime for hobbyists in just the past few years has turned into the hot new weapon for criminals. “They have become a way for people that cannot go into a gun store and buy a firearm to obtain a firearm,” said Barlow.
Building an un-serialized firearm out of parts for personal use is legal under federal law. But selling it is not.
”There are people that are buying these kits for the purpose of finishing them, assembling them then selling them to the highest bidder,” said Barlow. “That’s a big problem. That is where we focus our investigations.”
The ATF seized 50 AR-15 style rifles in a sting in the Sacramento area. They were assembled in a workshop behind a private home, destined for sale on the black market.
Barlow says 30 percent of guns taken into evidence in firearms trafficking cases are ghost guns. Law enforcement is recovering hundreds of them at crime scenes; mostly AR-15-style rifles but also more recently semi-automatic pistols.
“It’s the type of thing that we recover in my office on a weekly basis,” said Barlow. He says the guns are being used in all types of crimes from murder, robbery, assault and narcotics trafficking to drive-by shootings.
You can buy all the parts easily and there are plenty of YouTube videos that walk you through how to build a ghost gun step-by-step. We bought some parts used in making an AR-15 when we were in Reno this past summer from a private seller and called him when we got back to order the rest from his online store.
All the parts are perfectly legal to buy and own, even in California which has some of the strictest gun laws in the country. But here’s where it gets tricky. Some lower receivers – the centerpiece of any gun – are called an 80 percent lower because it’s only 80 percent complete. You still have to drill out three holes to make it functional, easily done with a $40 jig.
Since it’s not complete this is considered a part, not a gun. So at 80 percent, it doesn’t need a serial number and it’s legal to own in California. But you drill it out and finish it it’s a different story. Under state law, you are then guilty of felony possession of a firearm with no serial number.
“We don’t carry the 80 percenters,” said Bill Morgan, owner of Guns, Fishing and Other Stuff in Vacaville. “And most legitimate dealers won’t carry them.” Morgan only sells lower receivers that are already drilled and serialized at his store.
Morgan says the unserialized 80 percenters are not worth the risk, because customers who buy them are supposed to register them, but often don’t. So he’s not taking any chances.
“Everyone is worried about confiscation,” said Morgan. “The problem becomes if something else were to transpire with it, it would come right back to us.”
Morgan and many gun owners are not happy about a new law Gov. Gavin Newsom just signed to crack down on Californians who don’t register their homemade guns. It will require that so-called firearm “precursor” parts be sold only by licensed dealers and only after the buyer undergoes a background check.
Morgan says that’s a lot of paperwork that puts an unnecessary burden on law-abiding gun dealers and buyers. “There’s ten thousand parts. Who is going to keep track of those parts? I don’t think the DOJ has the database that will handle that,” said Morgan. They barely can handle the rifle and handgun stuff as well as the ammunition.”
We wanted to ask the Department of Justice how it plans to implement the new ghost gun law when it goes into effect in 2025. The agency turned down our request for an interview. We called around to local law enforcement agencies and they, too, didn’t want to comment. As for all the parts we bought, we’re turning them all over to the ATF.